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In-Person B2B Trade Shows Rebuild Momentum

In-Person B2B Trade Shows Rebuild Momentum

This image represents how B2B trade show participation is making a comeback for 2024.

If you’re planning to attend a B2B trade show this year, you’ll likely have a lot of company. The industry is coming back after pandemic shutdowns and lackluster attendance, data shows.

In-person business-to-business (B2B) shows in the U.S. are recovering from their pre-pandemic levels as exhibitors and attendees are eager for face-to-face interaction. The momentum has been a little choppy, but continues to show positive progress. By some estimates, the industry will rebound fully in 2024.

“We’re headed in the right direction,” says Nancy Drapeau, vice president of research at the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR).

Statista reports that in 2023, the industry’s estimated worth was $11.8 billion, compared with $3.8 billion in 2020. The projected value for 2024 is $13 billion, with steady increases expected annually. By 2027, Statista estimates the industry will be worth $14.7 billion.

In September 2023, CEIR reported that its 2023 Second Quarter Index – a measure of overall exhibition performance – surged 21.8% from the previous year. It was still 13.8% lower, however, when compared with the second quarter of 2019. The in-person cancellation rate remained extremely low at 0.6%, compared with 66.4% in the second quarter of 2021.

“CEIR research has documented an intent to return to face-to-face engagement at B2B exhibitions,” says CEO Cathy Breden. “Each quarter, the index is showing that more business professionals and exhibitors are coming back … to meet their marketing, sales and business information needs.”

The American Express 2024 Global Meetings and Events Forecast also shows the industry is in growth mode. Seventy percent of respondents, which included 500 meeting and events professionals and more than a dozen industry leaders, expect in-person attendee numbers to return to 2019 levels this year. This should please marketers as 60% cited in-person events as the most effective B2B marketing channel in a June 2023 LinkedIn/Ipsos survey.

You can see more in person on a show floor than you can scouring websites for hours.

Hybrid and virtual events are on the way out

In North America, 63% of meetings this year will be in-person only, compared with 19% being virtual only and 18% being hybrid, according to the American Express forecast. CEIR’s recent research echoes these statistics.

“Every time we’ve done a survey, those who plan to offer hybrid or virtual formats have decreased,” Drapeau says. “They’re just not popular anymore. Instead, organizers are focusing on making their in-person events the best they can be.”

B2B marketers want face-to-face experiences. Being in the same place allows them to connect and engage with one another. Moreover, they can discover new solutions to urgent business needs, she added. They crave the multisensory experiences that only in-person trade shows can deliver.

“So much of building relationships is still done in person,” says Allison Wagner, director of marketing and business strategy at Morrison Container Handling Solutions in Glenwood, Ill. “And because of COVID, I think there’s even more meaning to in-person relationship-building opportunities.”

At World of Concrete in January 2023, everyone wanted to meet, says Alyssa Fara, product specialist at PNA Construction Technologies in Glenview, Ill. Demand is just as high this year.

“Every meeting slot with the PNA team was fully booked,” Fara says. “In our industry, a lot of business is still done face-to-face.”

Wagner’s company tried holding virtual trade shows during the pandemic, but the effort fell flat.

“I think it comes back to the type of product that we sell,” she says. “It’s not a virtual product. The people we’re selling to need to see our equipment in person. You can see more in person on a show floor than you can scouring websites for hours.”

Graphics show that in-person B2B trade shows are on track to recover in 2024.

Spending to increase this year

Forty-seven percent of 894 B2B marketers said they’ll spend more on in-person events in 2024 compared with 2023, according to the Content Marketing Institute’s 2024 Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends forecast. They cited in-person events as a top channel over other opportunities, including webinars, blogs and email newsletters.

Mirroring this trend, Wagner’s company has added to the list of trade shows it exhibits at, some of which the company hasn’t participated in previously.

“I’m excited to explore new markets and get in front of new people,” she says.

More than three-quarters of respondents (77%) in the American Express meetings and events forecast said their attendee numbers have returned to 2019 levels, or they expect them to do so this year.

“Our trade shows seem as busy, if not busier, than they were before COVID Wagner says. “People are looking for that direct contact.”

Exhibitors prioritize sustainability

Sustainability is a top priority for most businesses these days. In-person events are no exception. Trade show exhibitors are showcasing their sustainability initiatives on the trade show floor. Meanwhile, attendees are looking for new partners that employ sustainable practices.

Exhibitors are using eco-friendly materials, such as recyclable carpeting, signs and structures. They’re also using energy-efficient lighting and appliances. Other steps include limiting plastic swag and phasing out printed marketing collateral. Instead, exhibitors are providing QR codes for downloading electronic documents.

“No one wants paper anymore,” Fara says. “They’d rather have a QR code to get a digital brochure.”

Some companies are winning the sustainability race and saving money by focusing on regional shows that are closer to their locations rather than flying to national events. By limiting air travel, they’re showing their commitment to sustainability.

In-person trade shows are ‘more relevant than ever’

Exhibitors and attendees are excited again about face-to-face interaction. Attendees are eager for more opportunities to network, exchange ideas and learn. They want to see and touch the products they’ve researched online and experience innovation.

Meanwhile, exhibitors want to increase brand exposure, gain buyers’ valuable feedback and capture those all-important sales leads.

“Nothing can replace live experiences,” Drapeau says. “In-person trade shows are more relevant than ever.”